Chances are your favorite childhood stories are tales of friendships, whether it’s between Harry Potter, Hermione, and Ron, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, or Bona and Rong-Rong. It’s very easy to find epic children and young adult books about friendships, the kind that makes you think of a life of adventures where anything is possible. After all, the making and breaking of friendship is one of the central dramas in a young person’s life.
It is surprisingly difficult, though, to find friendship as a central theme in fiction for adults. A few years ago, The Guardian published an article asking Why Modern Fiction Has Turned Its Back on Friendship, declaring that literature has relegated friendship to the subplot, below headline themes of family and romance, although we know for a fact that friendships continue to shape and define our lives beyond our teenage years. Sometimes, it is the one relationship that helps us survive adulthood.
Friendship for Grown-Ups, our sixth thematic collaboration with Aksara, highlights works of literature that gives friendship the attention it deserves. These are novels and memoirs that shapes and reshapes the dynamics and forms of friendship among adults: the kinds that nurture, the kinds that are brutal, the kinds that are lifelong, the kinds that are ending too soon, the kinds that are unexpected.
At its best, friendship can be a form of utterly unselfish love between two grown-ups. Leonard and Hungry Paul, for instance, shows a friendship of two quiet, unremarkable, grown men who are often overlooked in today’s fast-paced, attention seeking culture, built over board games, cups of tea, and everyday kindness. At its worst, friendships could turn downright toxic, as On the Road and The Talented Mr. Ripley would tell you.
Most of the time, lifelong friendships are somewhere in between: a complex relationship that waxes and wanes so naturally it takes a conscious, deliberate effort to keep it intact. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir of her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe chronicles such friendship, as is Ellena Ferante’s magnificent My Brilliant Friend, the first book in a quartet of novels that have been hailed as the defining fiction on the female friendship.
There are books focusing on the test, that one major conflict that would either make or break your friendship. How Should A Person Be? is literally a novel written as an apology to a friend. Conversations With Friends walks the delicate tightrope of exploring what it means to explore new relationships and allowing space for yourself to grow apart from a friend who is the central figure in your life. Meanwhile, Sir Vidia’s Shadow is a real-life account of what happens between two writers, Paul Theroux and VS Naipaul, when a three-decades worth of friendship did not end up surviving. Toni Morrison’s Sula explores the same theme, a break-up of a lifelong friendship that had survived a tragedy in the characters’ youth.
However, sometimes friendships are forged when you least expect it. The Supper Club is a story of an unlikely alliance between strangers, all of them women who wanted to unleash their appetites and feast without inhibitions after feeling suppressed by society all their lives. A Man Called Ove and The Professor and The Housekeeper both illustrate the kind of life-sustaining warmth that comes from giving attention and kindness to strangers around you. The Friend is an homage to the genuine friendship that could be formed between animals and their humans.
We’ve selected twenty books that embody what friendship for grown-ups could be. On each book, you’ll find a note on why we recommend that particular book.After reading one, or two, or more of these books, we hope that you’d drop your to-do list for the day and spend time with your closest friends. We surely will.